words by Allan Evans
A little reflection on last year’s season as well as a bit of my thoughts on why I think winter is the greatest teacher of all the climbing disciplines. I also feel I should state, I’m a complete punter when it comes to winter climbing, but a little less so after this season.
Having not done any winter climbing due to that thing that lasted a couple of years, that we would all rather forget, I kicked of the season with Number Two Gully on the Ben. A straightforward grade II gully to get back into the swing of things (I wish I could say that was intentional axe pun, but it wasn’t). My partner Ed was new to climbing and I’d been
mentoring him in the trad game for about eight months, he’s super psyched and got up to speed with trad very quickly. This would be his first winter route and I think he enjoyed it. I was rusty, and it was a long day finishing the walk out in the dark.
On my next outing I was climbing with Louise and Alec again opting for the Ben, going for Gardyloo Gully II/III. This route had been on my wish list for a while. It’s final pitch changes from season to season but often you climb through a rock arch/cave. This day was the epic of last season, with type two and three fun. It was Louise’s first winter climb and Alec didn’t have loads of winter experience. On the way up to the route we were chatting to some guys who had heard the crux was more like grade IV ice and had taken four screws. Needless to say, I was gutted when I fumbled a screw and it disappeared, even more gutted when Alec did the same shortly after, leaving us with only two.
We ploughed on, the climbing was steady for most of the gully, the ice was firm and there were steps from previous parties when it must have been a bit softer. So, we got to the last pitch and off I quest with my two screws towards the funkiest bit of ice I’ve ever seen form naturally. I don’t know how but the ice had formed into a kind of ice umbrella just in front of the rocky groove. I climbed into the groove to get myself established on the ice umbrella, threading a sling through the ice, and placing the screws. It was quite awkward to get on it and I had to reach back to get the axes in the ice, climbing in an overhanging position (maybe it was grade IV). I battled through till it eased off and I was in a comfortable position. Alec and Louise had been cheering me on from the belay, which I always find really helpful when I’m struggling. After finishing up the pitch I set up a belay on the summit, which was a big mistake, there was a scoop just after the pitch and before the summit, which was a lot more sheltered from the south easterly wind which was blowing hard.
My clothing and pack froze quite quickly, and my body started to go numb, I managed to get my belay jacket on which was a life saver.
Louise and Alec managed to battle their way up the ice over a period of half an hour which was a long time to be in that wind. Once they got to the summit, we made the decision to down climb Tower gully a grade I as to escape the wind asap. It was steep and began getting dark as we began, it was a gruelling first winter climb for Louise and took its toll, so the decision was made for me to assist Louise walking down, while Alec built bucket seats in the snow to body belay Louise for extra safety. We bumped into the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team as we got to the CIC hut and they graciously offered us a lift from the top car park down to the North Face car park and gave us sweets, which we were very grateful for.
On the third trip me and Louise decided to car camp in our recently acquired campervan module for Louise’s Berlingo, which was pretty brutal in winter. Waking up to frost in the car one morning, but totally worth it to wake up and go to sleep with the stunning mountains in Glencoe. Our friend Jon headed up to meet us and we decided to tackle the three-star classic on Bidean nam Bian in Stob Coire nan Lochan, which is an absolutely stunning corrie.
The walk in was a mixture of stunning views one minute then getting battered by wind and spindrift the next. The corrie was busy with teams, likely as it was one of the few places in condition in Glencoe at this time. Dorsal Arete was fairly straight forward mixed climbing with a crux at the end of the last pitch which I downclimbed on my first attempt as my hands had lost feeling, once I warmed them back up, I got it on the second go. With Louise and Jon following me shortly after, the wind had picked up and was strong enough to blow you over. We descended via the gully next to arete which was full of firm snow with me and Jon opting to slide down on our bums, the quick and fun way.
On the fourth and final trip to Scotland it was again me, Louise, and Alec. This was the most successful trip, racking up three routes in consecutive days. Which was likely due to the weather, there was no type 2 fun weather conditions. It was more like a summer alpine trip, with clear blue skies on all three days. Day one we started with Curved Ridge II 3, it wasn’t in great condition with the snow being quite soft, but being a rocky route it will go in any condition. I solo’d and Alec roped up with Louise more for a bit of confidence for Louise. Occasionally chucking the rope round a rock to belay. While it wasn’t in great climbing condition, the clear skies permitted us some stunning views of the Glencoe range.
Day two saw us heading to Aonach Mór and being able to take advantage of the gondola at the Nevis Range ski resort, making the walk in a little less painful. We went for Golden Oldy II a three-star classic ridge, there is some reasonably nice ice low down to climb to the base of the route, the ridge itself was stunning with incredible views. Alec solo’d while I roped up with Louise and we moved together placing the occasional piece of gear. We topped out and walked back to the gondola watching skiers and snowboarders enjoying the conditions.
We were all in a fun mood and had a little boogie in the gondola.
Day three saw us tackle Tower Ridge, the longest of all the ridges on Ben Nevis and maybe the biggest in Scotland and therefore the UK. I’d been on the route a couple of times before, so let Alec do all the leading while I sat on the back of our rope of three and took pictures. It was a busy day on the Ben with it being March, people were likely making the most of one of the last weekends of the season. Although I’d been on Tower Ridge before the conditions were the best I’d experienced, the ice was in great condition and every axe and crampon placement felt solid.
A part of me was a little sad I’d not done any of the leading, especially when Alec quested off route. But I did get some great shots, so I shouldn’t complain. Car to car was around twelve hours, which is pretty good going for this route. Although I imagine guides are doing it in eight to ten. This was a great end to what had been my best season.
The wisest discipline
Climbing can and has taught me so many lessons, which can be taken into everyday life. Patience, determination, humility etc, the list would be long. It also teaches how to push through our fears and anxieties.
How to continue when things go wrong (like when you drop two ice screws, and the climbing is way harder than you thought it was going to be). So, what is special about winter climbing, well it teaches all the things other disciplines do and more, it does so in the most extreme and hostile of environments.
It teaches us to suffer and endure in a way the other disciplines can’t. Everything feels heightened, ultimately, I feel more alive and more thankful for life afterwards, because in this arena it’s ever more present how fragile life is and therefore how precious it is.